Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Around the World...Morocco

Probably even before the days of “Casablanca” (the classic movie with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), Morocco held a fascination for people. Exotic, distant lands we’ve never been to usually do. When I think of dining in places like this, I envision tents with richly-hued, silken fabrics draped overhead with tassles dangling, servants pouring tea from high, wearing flat little shoes with curled toes, and belly dancers twirling to Middle Eastern music between courses.

The food of any country fascinates me. North Africa is a place I’ve never been to, and I imagine the food there to be complex. In fact, Moroccan cuisine is extremely diverse, thanks to the country’s interaction with other cultures and nations, having been subject to Berber, Moorish, Mediterranean, and Arab influences over the centuries. The cooks in the royal kitchens of Fez, Meknes, Marrakesh, Rabat and Tetouan refined it over the centuries and created the basis for what it is today.

Moroccan cuisine is far more heavily spiced that Middle Eastern cuisine. In the typical Moroccan kitchen, the scents of coriander, cumin, saffron, marjoram and onion mingle with olive oil sandalwood, mint and roses. Ginger and turmeric are also essential, as are paprika, cinnamon and white pepper.  A spice blend called Ras El Hanout is often called for in many dishes. Recipes vary but usually consist of cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers and turmeric. Talk about complex!

You may have seen the conical-shaped cooking vessel called a tagine, usually made of ceramic or clay, in cooking stores. A Tagine is also the name of the dish typically made in this vessel, basically a stew of meat and vegetables. Morocco is also well-known for other traditional dishes such as couscous, pastilla (also spelled bestilla), and harira (a soup usually eaten at the end of Ramadan to break the fast).

I’m always interested in what people eat. Morocco produces a large range of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables. Common meats include mutton, lamb, beef, chicken, camel, rabbit, and seafood, but are usually eaten in small quantities. The vast majority of what they eat is vegetables and legumes. In addition to spices, flavorings can also include lemon pickle, harissa (a spicy red pepper condiment I find delicious), cold-pressed olive oil, and dried fruits. Pork and alcohol are off limits because of Islamic Sharia laws.

In addition to food, Moroccan tea occupies a very important place in the country’s culture and is considered almost an art form. In fact, Morocco is one of the biggest tea importers of the world. Moroccan mint tea is simply a green tea with mint leaves and is commonly served throughout the Western Arab World (North Africa). It is served not only at mealtimes but all through the day, and it is especially a drink of hospitality, served whenever there are guests. Unlike Moroccan food, cooked by women, this tea is traditionally a man's affair: prepared by the head of the family. If you are a guest and are offered tea, it is impolite to refuse it.

You can make this tea yourself at home. The typical green tea used is a “gunpowder” variety imported from China. A simple and practical method for preparation follows:

·         In a teapot, combine two teaspoons of tea-leaf with half a litre of boiling water. Allow it to steep for at least fifteen minutes.
·         Without stirring, filter the mixture into a different stainless steel pot, so that the tea leaves and coarse powder are removed.
·         Add sugar (about one teaspoon).
·         Bring to boil over a medium heat. This important step in the preparation process allows the sugar to undergo hydrolysis, giving the tea its distinctive taste.
·         If desired, add fresh mint leaves to the teapot or directly to the cup. Remove the mint within two minutes, as it can give some people acid reflux.

Mustapha’s Moroccan spices, oils, olives and other Moroccan food products can be found at better food shops such as Williams-Sonoma or Crate & Barrel.

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